Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

The Duke of Gloucester arrives at the Tower of London to survey the weapons and ammunition stored there; he wants to check for any "conveyance" (i.e., theft) since the death of Henry V. His servants knock at the gates, but the guards refuse to let him in. Gloucester grows angry, and his men rush the gates. In response Woodville—the man in charge of Tower security—explains that Winchester has forbidden him from admitting anyone to the Tower.

Gloucester, who is losing his patience, threatens to storm the Tower just as Winchester appears with his own retinue of servants. They trade insults, calling one another traitors. Gloucester orders his servants to draw their swords; a fight breaks out, and Gloucester's men temporarily drive away Winchester's entourage.

This skirmish draws the attention of the Mayor of London, whose duties include keeping the peace within the city limits. He tries to intervene, but in spite of his efforts the fighting soon starts up again. Finally, one of the Mayor's officers reads out a proclamation forbidding the use of weapons, on pain of death. Realizing they will not settle their score today, Gloucester and Winchester part ways after exchanging a few more barbs. The Mayor, left onstage with his officers, mutters to himself about how touchy and quarrelsome the nobility are.

Analysis

Gloucester and Winchester get pretty creative in their insults, some of which may require a little explanation. Proditor, which Winchester uses as a derogatory pun on Protector, is an old Latin word meaning "traitor" or "betrayer." He is arguing, in essence, that Gloucester has exceeded his authority as Lord Protector and is on his way to establishing a dictatorship. (Luckily for young King Henry, this turns out not to be the case.) A few lines later he pulls out the rhetorical "big guns," likening Gloucester to Cain, the murderous son of Adam in the Book of Genesis.

Gloucester, on the other hand, is concerned mainly with making Winchester look ridiculous. He deflates Winchester's high ecclesiastical rank by referring to him as a mere "peeled [i.e., bald] priest." He then begins making fun of Winchester's scarlet robes and broad-brimmed hat, the symbols of his status as a cardinal. He threatens to "canvass" Winchester in the hat—that is, to toss him up and down in it, as one might do with a stretched-out picnic blanket. If that does not work, Gloucester's next move will be to wrap Winchester up in his robes like a baby and haul him away from the Tower.

In a play full of war, death, and betrayal, the exchange between Gloucester and Winchester comes as a welcome moment of comic relief. Winchester shrieks his over-the-top accusations; Gloucester responds with some rather silly put-downs. Then the Mayor robs the scene of any remaining dignity by showing up and breaking up the fight, as though he is the vice principal of England and not an elected official. Still the presence of the servingmen hints that the feud is not all fun and games. As individuals Gloucester and Winchester can only do so much harm to one another. As political leaders, however, they can (and will) draw their servants and supporters into a conflict that ends up costing many lives. The next scene to highlight the Gloucester/Winchester feud is Act 3, Scene 1; by that point the carnage has begun.

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